Football: Niko Kirwan carves his own sporting niche with late goal to secure All Whites victory

Moments before Niko Kirwan went on as a late substitute in Wednesday’s game against Bahrain, All Whites’ coach Danny Hay had a final message for him.

“You are going to win us the game” Hay told the fullback, with the score locked at 0-0 in the 73rd minute.

It’s a common, confidence-boosting refrain from those in the dugout to replacements, but this time it actually happened, with Kirwan the unlikely hero in the 1-0 win.

After staying forward following a corner, the 26-year-old was in the right place to head home a precise cross from Liberato Cacace in the 88th minute, capping off an eventful few days for Padova player.

Kirwan, who is the son of legendary All Black winger Sir John, only made his All Whites debut on Sunday, after his first call up in three and a half years.

“It’s unreal,” said Kirwan. “I was already so happy to get called up and really keen to show Danny and the staff what I’m capable [of] but you would never think that we would come away with two wins and especially the goal.

“When the ball went in I was so happy. It means so much to me, to score for your country is unreal.”

The All Whites had switched to a 3-5-2 formation and Kirwan was rewarded for his gamble. He pushed up, before Chris Wood caused some confusion from a throw in, allowing Cacace to find his fellow wing back.

“The cross from Libby was perfect and I thought I would hit the back post,” said Kirwan. “The goalkeeper had a bit of mistake there and I headed it in.”

The late goal capped another impressive display by the All Whites.

Despite the quick turnaround from Sunday’s 2-1 win over Curaçao, they dominated the game and should have been ahead before Kirwan’s moment, but lacked the killer finish or precise final ball.

Following on from the Tokyo Olympics, the result continues the recent momentum. Before Sunday, the All Whites had managed four wins over non-Oceania opposition in the last eight years; now they have grabbed two in four days.

And this victory was achieved with another young group, with an average age of 23. Joey Champness was impressive on debut and rookie Kelvin Kalua solid in his first start, with Michael Boxall, Michael Woud and Elijah Just the other changes.

“It’s probably a couple of historic results,” said Hay. “Tough conditions but they showeda lot of courage and were really quite resilient. We could have scored a few more goals, but absolutely pleased with the application of the players.”

It was just reward for Kirwan, who has been at four Italian clubs since 2017, chasing his professional dream in the lower tiers of the Italian game and hadn’t been in the national team picture since March 2018.

“I said [to myself], as soon as I jumped on that plane coming here, I didn’t want to have any regrets,” said Kirwan. “I wanted to use every training to give my all and try to show the player I’ve become in these four of five years playing in Italy.”

Kirwan also had to get over a pivotal error against Curaçao, which led to their goal and blotted an otherwise solid debut.

“I was very disappointed with myself,” said Kirwan. “I thought I bottled my performance with that little mistake. But I had to put it quickly behind me … it was all mental really.”

Bahrain, who made 11 changes from the team that beat Curaçao 4-0 last week, were disjointed – stretched, hustled and bustled by the young Kiwis.

Aside from the last 30 minutes, when they had some promising moments, Bahrain were mostly second to the ball and restricted to long range efforts.

Champness, who switched allegiances from Australia before the Tokyo Olympics, was a standout, along with Cacace and Joe Bell.

READ MORE: From student to ‘future captain’: The rapid rise of All Whites midfielder Joe Bell

Wednesday’s 4-3-3 system gave Champness space, and he demonstrated his ability to beat players.

“He is a very unique and different kind of player,” said Hay.

Champness went close twice, while Elijah Just, Callum McCowatt and Chris Wood also had chances that were saved or off target.

The All Whites were again patient in possession – and managed some neat sequences – although at times were guilty of being too deliberate and recycling too much, when a swift thrust was needed.

Hay admitted they will need to be more clinical in the future, but it is a small qualm after two games that have represented a significant step forward, with more matches to come next month.

“We are working through that,” said Hay. “We think we have got two good quality games that will test us. We just want to continue the momentum and keep trying to test the players.”

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